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One on One with… Martin Hetzer

Martin Hetzer

Martin Hetzer doesn't look like a scientist. The professor in the Salk Institute's Molecular and Cell Biology Laboratory and holder of the Jesse and Caryl Philips Foundation Chair is 6' 5" tall and more closely resembles a power forward for Austria's national basketball team. Fortunately for the Salk, he hung up his high-tops and contributed his talents to science. He finds purpose in research, his family and mentoring future scientists.

As the new director of the Salk's Waitt Advanced Biophotonics Center, Hetzer brings a unique eye into unraveling the mysteries of aging and diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's. A thoughtful leader, who had many influential people in his life steering him into a science career, he is now paving the way for others, including his son.

How will your research lead to a better understanding of aging?

Proteins are essential building blocks of our cells. As proteins age, they are more likely to encounter molecular damage. To combat the functional decline of proteins, cells use the process of protein turnover, by which potentially impaired polypeptides are constantly replaced with new functional copies. Consequently, a protein with a slow or no rate of turnover is at great risk of accumulating damage over extended periods of time. We have recently discovered that the components of essential multiprotein channels do not turn over and are extremely long-lived in the brain. The lack of a replacement mechanism of this class of proteins leads to a deterioration of their function over time that is ultimately associated with a loss of cell function. Strikingly, similar defects have been linked to various neurological disorders, including Parkinson's and Alzheimer's diseases, raising the possibility that our findings might form the basis for the development of therapeutic interventions.

Nearly 6 million Americans are afflicted with Alzheimer's, and aging is the greatest risk factor. How important is it that we understand how the brain ages?

Martin Hetzer

Martin Hetzer, wife Claudia and son Moritz

The projected cost for treating Alzheimer 's disease over the next 20 years in the U.S. is $1.6 trillion. It is completely unsustainable, and we will not be able to care for those affected by Alzheimer's. As our aging population continues to grow, it is critical that we discover solutions for treating this disease.

We are trying to understand the causes of neuronal aging and hope that our results ultimately will help us to delay the onset of Alzheimer's. When it comes to health care costs, the most expensive period in one's life span is typically the last three years. If we can delay the onset and progression by just a few percentage points, we will have made a significant impact by improving the lives of many people and lowering the costs of health care.

How will technology from the Waitt Advanced Biophotonics Center help scientists with their research?

Advanced imaging is probably one of the central technologies that will be influential and continue to be at the forefront of science in the next several decades. The center has had a major impact on the vast majority of the faculty at the Salk. In addition to the technology, we have been fortunate to assemble a strong team with great leadership. The team has pushed the envelope and has transformed the way we look at science.

The challenge today is that technology is changing at a rapid pace. Twenty years ago when you were an assistant professor, you could buy a microscope for $50,000 and use it for your entire career. Now when you buy a microscope, it's probably good for five years and will cost anywhere from $500,000 to $700,000. We need to work on an endowment in the center that will allow us to acquire new technology as it comes along, and continue to train staff to perform sophisticated analysis with microscopy.

What do you hope your lasting contribution will be in the field of science?

When I look back on my career, it is my hope that I will have made significant scientific contributions in the field of molecular and cell biology. As a scientist, a son, a husband and father, it is a personal mission that I strive for.

I also take great pride and cherish the opportunity to train the next generation of scientists. It is extremely gratifying to help young scientists grow in their profession and watch them move on to start their own labs and make important discoveries.

I consider mentoring a way of life. I am building a rich network of colleagues who will hopefully go on to make major contributions to science and pass the torch of mentorship to future scientists.

My postdoc advisor opened my eyes to science and taught me early in my career to enjoy science and be generous with your knowledge.

You have an eight-year-old son, Moritz. What are some life lessons you want him to learn from you and your wife?

Some life lessons I hope Moritz will embrace are the ability to remain curious about the world and deeply enjoy whatever he chooses to do in life. I hope that he will find purpose in his work, as I have. I want him to ask a lot of questions and not take answers for granted.

What kind of world do you hope to leave for him?

My wife, Claudia, and I would like to create a world that is both nurturing and intellectually stimulating for Moritz. I'd like my son to see a world that is not only focused on the bottom line and materialism. I want him to see the joy and passion in life and spend as much time as possible with people he cares about.

What lessons have you learned from your son?

The biggest lesson I have learned from Moritz is to enjoy the moment and to spend as much time as possible with family and friends. He also taught me to be more patient, and I am still learning. When he's caught up in his magical world, it reminds me that the same life lessons I am trying to instill in him. Moritz is actually showing me that I need to pause and rediscover the passion in everything that I do.

What would people be most surprised to know about you?

Most people don't know about my passion for hunting… .Just kidding. I think that many people see me as this rather organized and serious Austrian with little or no sense of humor. Although it is true that I am quite focused, I really enjoy laughing my head off, and one of the great perks that come with being a father is that you get a license to be silly. At home we have a bedtime routine that involves me performing some slapstick, like running into doors and falling down stairs. Oh, and then there is our Friday evening family tradition of listening to loud music and dancing till the neighbors come and tell us to turn it down.

How did you first become interested in science?

As a teenager I wanted to become a journalist or a philosopher or a rock star (our band for very good reason only had a handful of gigs). I also read a lot about explorers and scientists. My grandmother would tell me that I should go into science, and that stuck with me. I had many interests, though. I was curious about philosophy, journalism and even went to medical school and was enrolled in an MD/Ph.D. program. I soon realized that I had a strong passion for research.

What would you do if you weren't a scientist?

I would have been a filmmaker. I like the technical aspect of making a movie. It's more than the story. I imagine that there are some parallels to running a lab. As a movie director, you have to recruit a strong cast, secure financing, convince people to support the project and develop a marketing plan. It is a very creative process.

What type of film would you make? Who would you cast to play you in an autobiography?

I would produce science fiction/action movies. As an Austrian, I am of course a big fan of Terminator 2. Stanley Kubrick is one of my favorite directors. Every movie he did was just amazing. My movies would probably be overloaded with special effects. I guess any actor could play me as long as he is tall enough and can handle my Austrian accent.

What does the future of science look like to you? What would you tell your son if he wanted to follow in your footsteps and become a researcher?

Every area of biological science will require much more computation, statistical analysis and mathematics. Those are the major areas that we have to develop.

I would encourage Moritz to go into science. It's a wonderful profession, and you have an opportunity to make a long-lasting impact on society. It's creative and requires vision. I would tell my son to go into science if it brought him happiness and to remember to be generous with his knowledge.